Driverless Cars

I was listening to this story on NPR today on my drive home from work, and the reporter said something like 30,000 deaths [a year, I assume] are from car accidents, 95% of which are attributable at least in part to driver error, and wouldn’t it be nice if driverless car technology could help reduce or eliminate all those deaths. Now, I don’t know how fuzzy his statistics are, but in general I agree.

But that’s where it gets interesting – this goes from solving a technological problem to more of an existential question about what freedoms and responsibilities we are willing to relinquish. Ideally, driverless cars would create a traffic network free of congestion or collision. However we know that machines are only as error-free as the people who program them, and that sometimes they are simply unreliable. That would mean that even in a world where computers control all traffic, some percentage of deaths would still occur. The question is – what is our threshold for computer-related deaths? From our 30,000 deaths per year baseline, would we accept 5,000 computer-fault deaths a year? 10,000? 20,000?

I think there is something in our nature that abhors a reality in which all of our personal responsibility and ability to react is taken away from us, even if lives can be saved. It could be argued that given the choice between driver and driverless, if the driverless option on average produced just one less death a year, then it would be preferable.

And then there’s the issue of car insurance. How would that work?

Pollution

I heard an interesting story on KUT this morning about pollution in Pasadena, TX. I remember as a child thinking that Pasadena must be one of the worst places on Earth; we would cover our noses and shut all of the A/C vents in the car when driving through. I didn’t realize until I heard the story this morning that they actually have an alarm that goes off when they release big batches of benzene into the air so that you know when to hide your kids and close all your windows.

I was going to say something about this being like regulation-free China, but apparently Chinese coal companies have much cleaner facilities in China than in America:

Three months later, union workers and tribal members flew to Taiwan for a 2004 stockholders meeting of Continental Carbon’s parent company. The union protested with a hunger strike. Ponca tribal official Dan Jones returned from Taiwan with stunning photographs of the company’s carbon black plant there.

“It’s beautiful. It’s clean. They have gardens throughout the whole thing,” Jones recalls. “There’s no fugitive emissions at all.”

OMGZZ! Cell phones cause cancer!

Science!

No no no no no. This guy is a crank. The first thing he does is claim that the swine flu isn’t “real medicine.” And this is Fox News, where no facts are checked, ever. He cites an “increase in the incidence in brain cancer” as proof! Well, there is also an increase in the incidence of obesity, so maybe cell phones cause you to gain weight, too. Microwaves/radio waves are too long in wavelength to affect DNA. Longer wavelengths = lower frequency (ie, lower intensity). See the graph on this page.
Look at the size of the antenna on your phone (if your phone is from 1999) or radio. That’s the size of the wave, maybe a little smaller, but still nowhere near the intensity to affect DNA. They’re longer in wavelength than VISIBLE light. that would mean that your lightbulb causes even more cancer than your phone! The worst thing microwaves could do to the human body is warm it up. That said, don’t put your cat in the microwave.

MJ

One of my first musical memories is hearing Vincent Price’s creepy intro to Thriller echoing through my grandmother’s dining room. I distinctly recall crawling under the table across the room to seek solace from the huge, dusty console radio. I guess it freaked me out a little.

I, like so many kids my age, was also obsessed with dancing like Michael. And like so many other lanky, awkward kids, I thought I could. Or at least, I knew I might be able to, if I could only convince my mom to buy me that rad red leather jacket with all the zippers.

So thanks, Mr. Jackson. I never got the sweet jacket, but I have always and will always enjoy your music. I hope you’re creeping out Vincent Price right now, wherever you are.

Iranian news

Interesting stuff happening over there. A disappointing result, perhaps on its face, with Ahmadinejad retaining power after the (almost certainly rigged) election. But it could be a blessing in disguise; it may be what was necessary to unite opposition to the current regime. Mousavi (the expected opposition party winner) has openly called the election a fraud. And the latest news is that Rafsanjani has resigned his post. I mean, these guys while being the ‘opposition’ are deeply entrenched in the Islamic Republic establishment, and for them to openly oppose the regime like this could be meaningful. Could they be seeing signs of coming change? Rats jumping off a sinking ship? I hope so… But it will take support for the people of Iran to make any kind of real change happen. My only fear is that it will be very bloody; the current leadership deals with dissent viciously.

MIT amps up solar cells

MIT is developing a new solar cell technology that results in a tenfold increase in power conversion, takes up less space, and can be added to existing solar panels.

Photo caption:

Organic solar concentrators collect and focus different colors of sunlight. Solar cells can be attached to the edges of the plates. By collecting light over their full surface and concentrating it at their edges, these devices reduce the required area of solar cells and consequently, the cost of solar power. Stacking multiple concentrators allows the optimization of solar cells at each wavelength, increasing the overall power output.